Editorial: Newsom can’t have it both ways on California water

Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks after being sworn in on Jan. 7. In his first year in office, Newsom has not articulated a clear path forward for California water policy.
(Los Angeles Times)

It’s been a month since Gov. Gavin Newsom promised to sue the Trump administration to block stepped-up federal water diversions from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to agribusiness and urban areas further south.

It would be a righteous lawsuit. Trump had promised agricultural interests that they would get more of the water that until now has been kept in rivers, by law, to protect delta wildlife and migrating fish threatened with extinction. His administration accelerated a required review of the plan’s impact on endangered species in order to get the water flowing to almond orchards and other fields as quickly as possible. But the administration must not have liked where its scientists appeared to be going, because just before the review was to be released, it replaced the biologists working on the study with a new federal team. Their alternative science concluded that the Trump plan would be just dandy for winter-run Chinook salmon and other species on the brink.

Those new diversions from California rivers and the delta to federal water projects are now set to begin next spring, leaving the state with a choice: either lower its own environmental standards and go along with the questionable replacement opinions by the new federal biologists, or give up water from its own projects — much of it otherwise destined for Southern California households — to sustain the fish.


Or sue.

California has sued Trump dozens of times over dozens of policies and proposals, such as adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census, cutting off federal funds in retaliation for “sanctuary” policies, banning travel from some Muslim countries and speeding up border wall construction. Action is generally swift. Trump announces or implements the policy, Newsom or Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra announces a suit, and then California sues. More often than not, it wins.

But despite his Nov. 21 announcement, Newsom’s team still has not filed the water suit. That’s a bad sign, especially when paired with a proposal by the California Department of Water Resources to operate under new pumping rules that look remarkably like the Trump administration plan.

In his first year in office, Newsom’s direction on California water has been murky. Early on, he killed Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan for giant twin tunnels under the delta in favor of a single tunnel, but we have yet to hear how much water it would carry and for what purpose. He encouraged talks among water users and environmentalists to reach “voluntary agreements” over diversion of water from four key rivers — as an alternative to responsible flow standards already set by the state board that governs such things. In order to keep big water agencies at the table for those secret talks, he vetoed SB 1, a key bill that would have helped to stave off extinction for iconic species.

But now some of the same agencies that pressured Newsom to kill SB 1 — because it would have required that more water stay in the environment and out of irrigation canals — are also demanding that he back off from the lawsuit.

In other words, the large water agencies that supply agriculture and urban areas want Trump’s water and environmental policies to be Newsom’s water and environmental policies. Newsom has to decide whether he’s working for Californians — all of us who have a stake in our water and seek enough to quench our own thirst while keeping our fragile natural environment intact — or strictly for the agriculture industry. Or for Trump.

Newsom has no problem being the anti-Trump on other environmental matters. He pays no heed to the president’s ridiculous blathering about how global warming is a ruse dreamed up by China, or how California’s wildfires are comeuppance for not raking the forest floor. And more than a few of those lawsuits have focused on Trump’s retrograde environmental moves. But when it comes to water, Trump and his policies suddenly get a pass, perhaps because Newsom doesn’t want to alienate Trump’s powerful and well-funded supporters in agribusiness.


The coming year will be a big one for California water policy. We can expect to finally see Newsom’s delayed portfolio plan that should lay out his vision for collecting, conserving, supplying, transporting and sharing the state’s precious liquid resource. It should show how we will prepare for inevitable drought and flooding and keep intact our environmental and economic well-being as the climate warms and weather patterns become less predictable.

It should be a plan that springs from the best thinking of experts in a variety of disciplines, including economics, engineering, biology and climate science. It should be a plan by and for California — and not one by, or for, the nation’s notoriously science-denying president.